• UK study of 40,000 individuals and families during the first 2020 lockdown, reveals the pandemic's impact on people's welfare.
  • Women were disproportionally affected, taking on more caring responsibilities than men, resulting in reduced or adjusted paid work.
  • We need a care-led recovery to protect women's mental health and redress domestic gender imbalances.

Globally, COVID-19 containment measures have resulted in the closure of many services, including schools, basic healthcare, and day-care facilities. More people are at home than ever due to pandemic-related measures and lockdowns, therefore, the need for housework and care has multiplied.

More than 190 countries worldwide have implemented nationwide school closures in an attempt to prevent further contagion, impacting over 91%of world’s student population. Schools in the UK were first closed to most pupils as a pandemic control measure in March 2020 and again in January 2021 in response to the spread of COVID-19.

Much has been said about the setbacks to children’s learning and the challenges that have faced parents juggling homeschooling, childcare, housework and working from home during lockdown. Our research, using data collected during the early months of lockdown, shows that women spent considerably more time than men undertaking housework and childcare during lockdown and the knock on effect on working parents’ and lone mothers’ mental health.

Lockdown study

During April and May 2020, a number of participants from the 40,000 household study Understanding Society took part in a special ongoing COVID19 sub-study. They were asked a range of questions about how much time they spent each week doing housework and childcare/homeschooling. They were also asked whether they had had to adapt working patterns or reduce working hours due to childcare/homeschooling. They were also asked a range of questions to gauge the state of their mental health.

Gender inequality remains an issue

On average, the women in the study spent about 15 hours per week in April and May doing housework compared with men who spent 10 hours. When it came to caring for the children and doing homeschooling, women spent nearly twice as much time on this as men – 20.5 hours per week in April and May. For men, the figure was 12 hours per week for each month.

Because of the time spent doing childcare/homeschooling, one in six working mothers reduced their employment hours and one in three working mothers adapted their work patterns. Working fathers were five percentage points less likely to reduce working hours seven percentage points less likely to adapt work patterns due to childcare/homeschooling than working mothers.

Within couples, women undertook 64% of housework and 63% of childcare. Where parents were in a couple they tended not to reduce their working hours, although where this did occur it was more likely to be the mother than the father who made the adjustment to accommodate childcare or homeschooling (21% compared with 11%), and it was more likely to be the mother than the father who changed employment schedules (32% compared with 18%).

Effect on working parents’ mental health

Adapting work patterns was associated with mental distress for both working mothers and working fathers. Between couples, mental health was worse for the man/woman where he/she was the only one to adapt or reduce work hours for childcare. This suggests that fairness really matters in this context.

For lone mothers, having to change work patterns to juggle their job responsibilities with childcare and homeschooling, things were even tougher. They exhibited considerably more symptoms of poor mental health and this finding stayed strong even when we accounted for their mental health pre-lockdown.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

The World Economic Forum has been measuring gender gaps since 2006 in the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

The Global Gender Gap Report tracks progress towards closing gender gaps on a national level. To turn these insights into concrete action and national progress, we have developed the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators model for public private collaboration.

These accelerators have been convened in ten countries across three regions. Accelerators are established in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, and Panama in partnership with the InterAmerican Development Bank in Latin America and the Caribbean, Egypt and Jordan in the Middle East and North Africa, and Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

All Country Accelerators, along with Knowledge Partner countries demonstrating global leadership in closing gender gaps, are part of a wider ecosystem, the Global Learning Network, that facilitates exchange of insights and experiences through the Forum’s platform.

In 2019 Egypt became the first country in the Middle East and Africa to launch a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator. While more women than men are now enrolled in university, women represent only a little over a third of professional and technical workers in Egypt. Women who are in the workforce are also less likely to be paid the same as their male colleagues for equivalent work or to reach senior management roles.

In these countries CEOs and ministers are working together in a three-year time frame on policies that help to further close the economic gender gaps in their countries. This includes extended parental leave, subsidized childcare and removing unconscious bias in recruitment, retention and promotion practices.

If you are a business in one of the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator countries you can join the local membership base.

If you are a business or government in a country where we currently do not have a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator you can reach out to us to explore opportunities for setting one up.

Long-term impact

Gender inequality in unpaid care work due to school closures may exacerbate persistent gender inequalities in the job market. Increased responsibilities at home during lockdown have made it even harder for lone mothers to continue working and this may have implications for their return to work or further hardship as they try to juggle uncertain times ahead. Research on the long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic needs to be conducted again to determine how things have changed over time. Awareness of continued gender biases in divisions of labour and their impact on psychological health is important for both couples and employers going forward.

Help people get their lives back on track

All students in England could return to classrooms from March 2021. With children back at school, the load will have eased for some, but the stresses and worries of lockdown are by no means over. There are numerous reports of schools sending home whole classes of children to quarantine due to COVID-19 cases among teachers and pupils alike.

The Women’s Budget Group (WBG, a leading UK women's finance charity), together with a number of other leading voices in the gender equality debate, say a care-led recovery is what’s required in order to redistribute unpaid work between men and women more equally. Our research adds weight to the WBG calls for a care-led economy where policymakers and businesses recognize and address the extra burden and psychological stresses that have been faced by women.

In the longer term, there are valuable lessons to make sure support measures are put in place to ensure women are not impacted in this way again. More equal parental leave may help to shift gender imbalances in unpaid care work at home. This is another project we are currently working on, and our preliminary results show that fathers' leave-taking at birth is associated with fathers' higher levels of involvement in childcare in both the short and long-term.

At a global level, governments everywhere must recognize that the pandemic is derailing hard fought for improvements and that lone mothers, yet again, are suffering most. Action is needed now to help people get their lives back on track and keep the gender equality train moving forward.

The author is a member of the World Economic Forum Expert Network.